Culture

Station Eleven rewards the viewer in ways “puzzle TV” doesn’t.

When HBO’s exquisite Station Eleven came to a close on Thursday, it answered both more and less than we perhaps expected about its main players following a civilization-toppling flu pandemic. What the finale proved is that the show’s more questionable plot devices—like children locating and digging up land mines—don’t matter. “Plot holes” aren’t really something to worry about with this drama. That’s partly because the end of civilization has left the world within the show so fractured that sense-making is inherently difficult, and partly because it’s a story about trauma that mercifully transcends it by subordinating plot mechanics to the pleasures of poetic echoes and personal as well as symbolic connections. Patrick Somerville, Station Eleven’s showrunner, also worked on The Leftovers, and Station Eleven shares with that earlier show a commitment to questions over answers. What I mean by that isn’t that the post-apocalyptic drama doesn’t supply answers—it does, in increasingly rewarding layers as the miniseries unfolds until a fullish picture of the past emerges—but rather that the questions that really matter can’t be addressed through plot mechanics. We are not interested (for example) in how the pandemic started, or who (if anyone) engineered it, or even how exactly it works. None of that matters. We don’t even especially need to know the particulars of the Station Eleven graphic novel within the show. What matters far more is the feeling the book creates and what that feeling does.

[Read: Station Eleven’s creator explains why he changed the book’s ending.]

The result is that Station Eleven sidesteps puzzle-box elements that fire up fan communities in shows like I, Robot and Westworld and yes, Yellowjackets. The latter, a great show which has been airing concurrently with Station Eleven, shares a number of features with it including abdominal stabbings, secret symbols, split timelines, and survivalist communities, but it couldn’t be more different in style, mood, structure, and intent. If Yellowjackets, with its group of plane-crash survivors, riffs inventively on the antihero genre and revels in red herrings, Station Eleven plays with the audience by almost manically hyperlinking between its various storylines and characters. Sure, Station Eleven effectively portrays the devastation of losing everything. But then—almost as an act of mercy toward the viewers—it eases those psychic blows by saturating its plotlines with (excessive, frankly rococo) connections.

Trauma is tricky to handle fictionally. It’s heavy enough that the fact of it frequently, in less sophisticated hands, gets mistaken for revelation. Post-apocalyptic narratives are vulnerable to this understandable but disappointing storytelling shortcut for obvious reasons; the shock of civilization ending is a perfect engine for mass trauma, and it would be enough, perhaps, to simply track how each character’s sense of wholeness got shattered. How their world got lost. (Station Eleven does some of this, quite beautifully.)

It would also be enough, arguably, to reproduce in the audience the feelings of despair and uncertainty the characters have suffered, without weaving anything more out of their individual stories. This is actually what I thought Station Eleven was up to at first. That it isn’t a puzzle-box doesn’t mean it’s without suspense (spoilers follow). I was driven wild, for instance, by how skillfully the show made me want to know the content of a text message Kirsten receives as a child. It’s not the kind of thing that needed to be a mystery. But Station Eleven withheld it for just long enough—a matter of minutes—to make the viewer agonize over what exactly was making a little girl scream. When the text is revealed, it’s the opposite of a jump-cut or a twist; it’s exactly what you thought. And terrible. A similar thing happens later when you see Jeevan and Kirsten leaving their refuge. Frank, Jeevan’s brother, isn’t with them, and his absence is obvious and eerie and goes absolutely unaddressed. WHAT HAPPENED TO FRANK? I said to my partner, practically grabbing him by the collar. But I quickly resigned myself to never getting an answer. This was what the show was about, I thought: recreating in us, through jagged jumps, the omissions and unexplained losses the characters suffer too.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about this. Yes, the show leaves painful gaps like these—and they are painful because one fills them by intuiting the heartbreaking answer: Frank is dead. It’s not a hard puzzle to solve. But the show doesn’t abandon you there. The gaps are temporary, and over time, they slowly get filled in. Station Eleven supplies answers constantly, in ways that layer and build to a resolution that feels resonant and complete. If it provides suspense, it satisfies that itch too. The fact that the episodes are released—unusually—in pairs speaks somehow to this gentle approach to storytelling. It’s dialogic. The pairs build in a way that’s distinctly unapocalyptic: The progression feels steady, planned, and confident. Anti-traumatic, if you will. If this is a show that addresses, albeit sideways, the ways people can mend from a traumatic injury, it seems to be taking that a step further and performing a fascinating, technical, story-based version of that healing process for the viewer’s benefit too.

The most salient instance of this strategy is the slow revelation that everyone in the show is somehow connected to everyone else. It’s not enough that virtually everyone has some tie to Arthur Leander, the charming, gifted, and callow actor played by Gael Garcia Bernal whose death sets the series in motion. Jeevan—who comes to serve as a parental figure to Kirsten—delivers baby Alex, who becomes the teenager Kirsten will quasi-parent in much the frustrated and well-meaning way he did her. Kirsten and the Prophet share a unique obsession with the Station Eleven graphic novel and with Arthur Leander but are also linked interpersonally through Alex whom they both, at different points, lose. When Kirsten’s pregnant friend leaves her and the Traveling Symphony to take up residence in St. Deborah-by-the-Water, the Deborah the town is named for turns out to be Terry, the disgraced doctor who saved Jeevan from his injuries (and kidnapped him away from Kirsten). Kirsten keeps losing—and gaining—people  from this specific place!

I could go on. The show is saturated with symbolic echoes, too: Jeevan’s grief over his siblings’ deaths results—not directly, but poetically—in him becoming a doctor like his sister and walking with a cane like his brother. When Kirsten stabs the Prophet, she does so in exactly the same part of the abdomen—and with the same weapon—that killed Frank. By the time the Lear plot turns into Hamlet, with all the relevant characters explicitly assigned to play Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet, all this can start to feel a tad overdetermined. Is anyone a random stranger in this world?

(The answer is yes, maybe one: the guy who auditions to join the Traveling Symphony with Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day.)

Sure, the show can start to feel like it’s overdoing the almost cosmic overlap between its characters. But there’s a way in which this works in reverse too. Station Eleven isn’t following some supernatural principle according to which everyone in its universe is connected. Rather, the show makes it seem that the reason we’re hearing this particular set of stories is because they are connected. Station Eleven is obviously and unsubtly interested in art—art as artifice, art as authenticity, and art as a preserver of civilization that stands in opposition to civilization’s less savory aspects, like tech. Art is also work. The show is at least as interested in the artifice and labor and faith that connection requires as it is in cosmic coincidence. When we eventually realize that the water slide where Kirsten first meets the Prophet sits outside the cabin she once shared with Jeevan until he disappeared, it’s clear that these sorts of “coincidences” (as we experience them) are neither spurious nor random. Many of them are generated, and with considerable effort, by characters trying to rebuild. Kirsten returns here every year to see if there’s any sign of Jeevan, and the Wheel isn’t just a touring route but a way to generate predictability and the hope, or possibility, of return.

If these “aha” moments are revelations, they’re interestingly distinct from the puzzle-box variety and also more powerful. More than once I found myself descending into puzzle-box thinking: Was the Prophet lying when he said the children bombed Gil on their own because he’d lost control of the story? What were the graves about? How did Tyler feed all these children? Was Kirsten just going to let those kids blow the airport up if they weren’t convinced by her reading? At what point exactly did Tyler change his mind about his plan to blow everything up and how did he communicate that? Why is Alex being so annoying and what in the world did the Prophet say to her to get her to betray pretty much everyone in order to follow him?

The answers to these questions aren’t always there, even when the show might have benefited from supplying them. But one intuits Station Eleven’s “spiritual” answers: Alex is annoying because teenagers are annoying—and reflexively rebellious—and a feature of teenage rebellion is that the adults don’t understand the appeal of what they’re turning toward. But I don’t have to like Alex or find her character charming (though I do wish the show had done a slightly better job selling me on this front) just as I don’t have to find young Tyler, a morose and resentful child, lovable. It matters, however, that others do. As for whatever “twist” ended up aborting Tyler’s plan to have the “Undersea” children destroy the airport, the show’s reasoning is clear: some combination of the graphic novel (for the child) and the play (for the Prophet) deradicalized them. We didn’t have to see the mechanism of that internal change to understand that it happened. And to the extent that this is a story about trauma healing, that makes sense: those internal changes won’t conform to an outsider’s sense of how meaning is made. And we are inevitably outsiders to what these characters have suffered. But Station Eleven does a hell of a job at inviting you in.

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